Ruby Payne-Scott [1912-1981]

By Colin WardMarch 23rd, 2011

Ruby Payne-Scott was an Australian pioneer in radio physics and radio astronomy, and is believed to have been the first female radio astronomer.


Ruby Payne-Scott was born on 28 May 1912 in Grafton, New South Wales and moved to Sydney in the early 1920s to attend the Cleveland Street School. She was then at Sydney Girl’s High School obtaining a leaving certificate in 1928. At the young age of 16, she began Sydney University and graduated in 1933 (course finished in 1932) with First-Class Honours in physics and maths. She was just the third woman to graduate in physics from the University of Sydney. Her MSc in 1936 was in physics, having worked on a medical physics project at the Cancer Research Institute at Sydney University.

From 1936 to 1938, she was a physicist at the Cancer Research Institute. When the cancer research project closed down she had to find another job as there appeared to be no positions available for a woman physicist. So she obtained a Diploma of Education from Sydney teachers’ College in 1938 and taught at the Woodlands Glenelg Church of England Girl’s Grammar School in South Australia.

As Dr Claire Hooker commented on the ABC Science Show in 14 Feb 2004:

At that point in her life, Ruby may well have been the story of many other brilliant women of her era. She may have disappeared into teaching and we may not have heard anything of her again. But I guess she loved physics and was looking for a way back in and she applied to Australian Wireless Amalgamated (AWA), an enormous company in those days that ran all the wireless services in Australia and it was the major hirer of physicists at that time.

Ruby was the very first woman they hired in a research capacity. Before Ruby, they had been very wary of hiring women even as typists and as cleaners. Ruby they hired as a librarian but she quickly turned the word librarian into a whole lot more. She started editing their journal, she started to get involved in doing some of the research work in their standards laboratory and pretty soon her full-time ‘librarian job’ was a full-time physicists research job.

Research contributions

In a remarkably short period, Payne-Scott played a key role in the rapid growth of radio astronomy in the immediate postwar environment. She provided scientific leadership in this period as well as technical insights. In the seven years as a radio astronomer (1944-51), she made monumental contributions to this new science in which Australia excelled and helped lay the foundations for many future decades of world leadership in radio astronomy.

The beginning of World War II in 1939 created more career opportunities for women science graduates. As noted above she began her career as a radio engineer at Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA) in 1939 as a librarian. In August 1941, she was appointed as a research scientist at the newly established (1939) CSIR Division of Radiophysics; the obscure name of the Division was intended to hide the true nature of radar research.

Ruby Payne-Scott had a remarkable career at CSIRO as a radio astronomer where she worked on the development of World War II radar as well as in solar astronomy. In 1941, about 3 months after her appointment Taffy Bowen, the head of the Division then, wrote a kind of memorandum on Ruby as a probationary employee saying:

Well, she’s a bit loud and we don’t think she’s quite what we want and she may be a bit unstable, but we’ll let her continue and see how she works out.

In March 1944, she and Joseph Pawsey carried out an initial radio astronomy experiment from the Madsen Building in the grounds of Sydney University. This was followed in 1945 by her carrying out some of the key early solar radio astronomy observations at Dover Heights (Sydney). In the years 1945 to 1947, she discovered three of the five categories of solar bursts originating in the solar corona and made major contributions to the techniques of radio astronomy.

In 1948, Payne-Scott spent a year at the Radiophysics field station at Hornsby studying the Type I and Type III solar bursts; she was assisted by Marie Coutts Clark. She led the research on the design, construction and use of the ‘swept lobe’ interferometer which in 1948-49 enabled Payne-Scott and Alec G Little to image the sun 25 times a second; thus a movie was constructed that allowed the observer to follow the time evolution of the solar outbursts of Type IV.

Political conflicts and the fight for women’s rights

She was an early advocate for women’s rights in the work place, well before her time. Equal rights for women were hardly heard of in the 1940s. In those days women had to deal with discrimination, not by their colleagues, but by administrators and petty bureaucrats. And it wasn’t just unequal pay, trivial restrictions abounded. One was the edict that women were not allowed to smoke, the men could smoke but the women could not. When this came up for discussion, Ruby apparently went into the interview smoking a cigarette just to show that this was nonsense and completely unfair.

Another was the dress code. The women were told that, unlike the men, they were not allowed to wear shorts but were expected to wear a skirt. When brought in for an interview, Ruby said:

Well, this is absurd. We’re climbing up on ladders, up on aerials every day. I’m not going up on a ladder with a skirt on. The shorts are much better attire for us.

Payne-Scott had two significant conflicts with CSIRO shortly after the transition of CSIR to CSIRO in 1949. In October 1949, the issue of equal pay for women arose. During the later stage of the war, women scientists had been paid equal wages instead of the previous 75 per cent rate. In 1949, a reversion to the old pay scale was imminent. As of 6 June 1949, the Women’s Employment Board (WEB) regulations were declared to be no longer valid. Temporarily CSIRO agreed to pay the same wages to women who were appointed prior to 6 June 1949 ‘provided they continued to work in the same Division on the same work’.

New hires or transfers were to be paid the old ‘female rate’. Payne-Scott wrote in the CSIROA (Officers Association) Bulletin on October 1949: the best advice to the women concerned is to stick like glue to their present fields of work till the situation is defined

In December 1949, there was a desultory discussion with Sir Ian Clunies Ross (Chairman of the new CSIRO) in Sydney about the fate of 60 women Research and Technical Officers. Payne-Scott wrote in the December CSIROA Bulletin: Dr Ross promises to investigate the position…

The most serious and far reaching conflict that affected Payne-Scott had its origin in 1944 when Ruby Payne-Scott and WH (Bill) Hall were married in Sydney on 8 September. Until November 1966, the Australian Public Service required married women to resign. This event had serious consequences for her full-time employment at the CSIR. As her former colleague Joan Freeman (who became an eminent nuclear physicist in Britain) recalled:

At that time she let it be known that she was living with a man, Bill Hall, to whom she was not married. Nowadays, little would be thought of such a situation, but in the 1940s, ‘living in sin’ as it was called, was looked on askance. However Ruby, who had always kept her private life very much to herself, carried on as usual, unperturbed. It was not until 2 years later that the truth came out. She had been married to Bill all along, but did not want the fact to be known officially because of the long-standing rule in Government Establishments that married women could not be employed on a permanent basis. Ruby had hoped by her deception, to evade what she considered to be an outrageous and discriminatory law. All her Radio Physics friends, having developed a strong affection for Ruby as well as respect for her scientific abilities, greeted the story with hilarity and sympathized with her attitude.

When the CSIRO administration discovered in 1950 that she was married a confused series of letters with Clunies Ross began. A personal interview between Payne-Scott and the CSIRO Chairman occurred in Sydney.

On 20 February 1950, Payne-Scott wrote Clunies Ross:

Thanks for your inquiries on my behalf, but when I spoke to you about my marriage I was in effect asking you whether the Executive realises that the customary demoting of women officers on their marriage to the status of ‘temporaries’ does not appear to be required in the Act and whether the Executive agrees with the procedure or not … All the married women research officers I have met feel that their classification as ‘temporary’ puts them at a considerable psychological disadvantage in their work… Personally I feel no legal or moral obligation to have taken any other action than I have in making my marriage known.

She then stated that she never tried to keep her marriage secret and the letter ends with:

I told you my story, not in order to implicate you in anyway, but to demonstrate that the present procedure is ridiculous and can lead to ridiculous results.

Clunies Ross replied on 3 March 1950:

In conclusion, I think the simplest way of regularizing the whole affair would be for you to tell us the date of your marriage. We will look into the matter and tell you what should be done in your own and our best interest.

Of course, Payne-Scott lost this battle and her provident fund contributions were returned with the loss of the CSIR and CSIRO contributions (1946-50). She was reduced to a temporary employee status. GA Cook (Secretary of CSIRO) did write a sarcastic handwritten note at the time that was placed in her personnel file. He indicated that Payne-Scott had been married in secret for six years and that no ‘disciplinary action of any kind’ was to be applied as the CSIRO wanted ‘employment to continue’. Payne-Scott also lost all pension rights for the future.

ASIO files

On the 12 March, to mark Women’s History Month, the National Archives of Australia reported it had uncovered previously secret Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) files which shed light on Ruby Payne-Scott’s extraordinary career, cut short by pregnancy and forced retirement. She was described as a pioneer radio physicist and outspoken advocate for women’s rights who was passionate about the independence of scientific research.

She was also an alleged member of the Communist Party of Australia. This brought her to the attention of ASIO. Scott-Payne’s ASIO file indicates that she was of interest from 1948 to 1959. In an ASIO report dated March 1959, an informant, whose name has been withheld, incorrectly alleged that she was dismissed from what is now the CSIRO, ‘for failing to give notification of her marriage’.

As Miller Goss comments in the ABC – The Science Show of Saturday 14 Feb 2004:

Dick McGee got the complete file about Ruby from the Australian archives and there are about 39 pages from the ASIO file and we have about half of those pages. And apparently ASIO was very sensitive to left-wing influences during the war at the Division of Radio Physics and we’ve discovered in the file – and there are many blanked out sections from these letters – that there was an informant there who accused Ruby of being a communist and this goes on for many, many pages. After a while it’s almost comical if the stakes were not so high. It was a very dangerous situation for Ruby to be accused of. But in the end the final statement in the ASIO file, which was closed in the mid 1950s, is that there is no evidence that Miss Payne-Scott is a member of the communist party of Australia.

Resignation and retirement

On 20 July 1951, Payne-Scott resigned with a notice of only two days. She was pregnant for the second time, having had a miscarriage a few years previously. Her son Peter G Hall (FAA and FRS) was born 20 November 1950 and became a well known mathematician and Professor at the University of Melbourne. With no maternity leave, there was no choice. On 17 July 1951, Sir Frederick White (CEO of CSIRO who knew her well from his time at Radiophysics during the war and Chief of the Division from October 1942 to the end of 1944) wrote a letter congratulating her on the imminent birth of her child:

This event must be giving you a great deal of pleasure but I can well imagine that you regret having to leave off research, at least for the time being. Unfortunately we cannot give a married woman leave without pay, but I can assure you that I at least would be very pleased to see you return to Radiophysics in due course. I hope that the event comes off successfully.

A month later, she wrote White:

I am sorry to give up the research work I have been doing and also to leave the lab where I have been happy and have so many friends. If all goes well I do not expect to be returning to Radiophysics at least for some years…

When Payne-Scott left Radiophysics, she had one of the highest salaries of the scientific staff who were not in the administration (920 pounds per annum) and had been promoted to Senior Research Officer Grade I. Thus this 39 year-old mother’s research career came to an end.

In November 1953, the second child (Fiona Margaret Hall – the prominent Australian artist) was born. The family lived in Oatley, a southern suburb of Sydney, NSW and Ruby stayed home to raise her two children until 1963. In that year, she began her teaching career again as a math and science teacher at Danebank Anglican School for Girls in Hurstville. She retired in 1974. It is likely that she developed Alzheimer’s disease at an early age and died in Sydney on 25 May 1981, just a few days before her 69th birthday.

A biography of Payne-Scott Under the Radar : Ruby Payne-Scott, the first Woman Radio Astronomer by Professor Miller Goss and Dr Richard McGee was launched in Australia in November 2009.

Honours and awards

In Ruby’s honour CSIRO, in 2008-09, initiated the Payne-Scott Awards which are designed to support researchers who have taken extended leave to care for a newborn child following birth. The grant provides support to researchers to re-establish themselves and re-connect with the research underway in their field and related fields of research.